Reading the Quran

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The following photograph appears in this BBC article: "Why is Sanskrit so controversial?"

It is accompanied by this caption: "Muslims in India choose to learn Arabic".

This led me to wonder: Do Muslims around the world all really learn Arabic so that they can read the Quran? As Brian Spooner said to me, "No Muslim reads the Qur'an in any language other than Arabic. That's what they say, and I have never seen them use translations."

Jamal Elias makes more precise what is going on in that picture and in what sense Muslim faithful learn to read Arabic:

It’s the Qur’an in Arabic. The majority of non-Arab Muslim children from pious backgrounds learn to “read” the Qur’an as a ritual act: scriptural Arabic (like books for kids) is written with full vowelization (normal Arabic doesn’t have written short vowels). Once one learns the script it’s very easy to read phonetically without knowing what it says. This would hold true in Bangladesh, Turkey, etc. where the normal script is not the Arabic one.

For the sake of clarification, Arabic short vowels are written as diacritical marks which are omitted in normal writing. The exception is when adding them would eliminate ambiguity (e.g., to differentiate active from passive voice, make the object of a verb clear, and so on). They are included in children’s books because they are still learning the language. They are also included in copies of the Qur’an (and were in manuscripts from at least the 10th century), most probably because making a mistake in scripture is a serious thing. Meaning, the Qur’an is written as a phonetic text.

Leopold Eisenlohr explains in greater detail the phonological apparatus that may be drawn upon to flesh out the recitation of the Quran:

The Quran there [in the photograph] has full vowelization. The person is reading Surah al-'Ankabūt, the Spider Surah.

All Qurans I have seen have full vowelling, and I think it would be strange to see one without it. The earliest ones didn't even have dots – since they functioned as reminders for something orally memorized, the need for a totally phonetic script did not exist as it does now.

Some special Qurans include extra markings for tajwīd, which could partially be compared to sandhi. Those would be recitation markings, indicating how certain sounds are assimilated or otherwise affected by their surroundings. For example, the sound n is assimilated into the sounds l, r, m, y, w, b, but this is only in very exact recitations. I personally think the degree of exactness in the tajwīd system is suspiciously similar to that of Sanskrit, and was possibly informed by the Sanskritic understanding of points of articulation. But at this point it is just an arrant suspicion without clear evidence. Tajwīd extends to markings for where to pause and other features of how to physically recite. Again, those are mainly for specialists but are probably learned by many.

I think it's very interesting that many books in China include, in addition to a Chinese translation of the Arabic original, a transcription into Chinese characters. It's the farthest thing I can imagine from a phonetic pronunciation of Arabic, but the efficacy of the Arabic utterances is still important. I picked up a Bengali Quran with Bengali phonetic transcription, but I'll have to look at it again to see if it makes an effort to be exact.

To be a little more clear, the rules of tajwīd are learned and are not all marked in the majority of Qurans. In this example below, the assimilation of m to r is marked (with a shadda, or gemination sign): instead of 'īšatin rādiyah, what is pronounced is 'īšatir rādiyah because of the rules for assimilating n, and there is a mark to indicate that. There are other rules about interaction between types of consonants which are not marked, and I also don't know if this n to r assimilation is marked in all Qurans. By "special Qurans" I mean those which are color-coded that some use for learning recitation and those that have all the stopping/pausing markings, though someone more knowledgeable should weigh in.

Yes, it's a very big issue, and I'm sure it's done in unique ways all over the world. I wish I knew more about the history of how the understanding of phonology developed — whether modern knowledge of linguistics has been put to use at all.

The first two definitions for "read" in The American Heritage Dictionary are:

1. To examine and grasp the meaning of (written or printed characters, words, or sentences).
2. To utter or render aloud (written or printed material).

It would appear that, for most Muslims, "reading" the Quran involves the second definition, but not necessarily the first.


  1. Monoglot said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 4:53 pm

    Since obviously not every Muslim speaks and understands Arabic (especially classical Arabic), how do they learn from the Quran? Do they use translations, or is there an Islamic equivalent to the Poor Man's Bible?

  2. Rubrick said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 5:03 pm

    Similarly, millions of American Jewish children (myself included) have learned to "read" Hebrew phonetically, with no expectation of actually learning the language. For most Reform Jews, anyway, a bar/bat mitzvah is an act of sheer memorization.

    I did take some actual Hebrew classes, but have retained virtually no vocabulary and no grammar whatsoever.

  3. Lameen said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 5:28 pm

    Of course Muslims read1 translations of the Qur'an. Every mosque I've been to in the West or in the Gulf has had at least some copies of the Qur'an accompanied by translations between the lines or on the opposite page. But for the obligatory daily prayers, you have to read2 from the Qur'an – and for that purpose, only the original Arabic text is acceptable, not a translation. Thus, reading1 the Qur'an is encouraged, but reading2 it is obligatory. (I've discussed this on my blog previously: Language policy and Islam.)

  4. maidhc said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

    In the days when the Catholic Church operated in Latin, Catholics learned prayers and responses in Latin without necessarily knowing any other Latin. If their native language wasn't a Romance language, learning Latin would be not that easy either.

  5. Jim Breen said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 5:44 pm

    In my pre-Vatican-II childhood I was an "altar boy" and learned a large part of the Latin mass off by heart without understanding much of it. Later I did a lot of choral work, and also learned the words of all the major prayers and passages which are set to music (magnificat anima mea, etc. etc.).

    Years later I enrolled in informal Latin classes, and it was quite a revelation to have the grammar, etc. of all this text unfold before me, so to speak. I finally knew why it was "dixit dominus". (I remember that as an aide-memoire I annotated my list of Latin cases with the equivalent Japanese particles (が, を, の, に, で, etc.)

  6. Levantine said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 6:02 pm

    Non-Arabic-speaking Muslims do use translations of the Koran to understand its content, and have been doing so for centuries (see, for example, My grandmother has a Turkish translation on her bedside table. Besides the translation, this book also contains the Arabic text and a transliteration of the Arabic into the modern Turkish alphabet. In other words, you don't even have to know the script to be able to "read" the Arabic.

    Practising Muslims also learn various Arabic prayers and Koranic passages that they recite as they pray. In most cases, such memorisation entails learning the overall meaning rather than truly understanding the Arabic on a word-by-word level. Many of my relatives can recite the Fatiha (the opening chapter of the Koran) without having more than a vague sense of what they are saying.

    It's also worth pointing out that the kind of Arabic that non-Arab Muslims might "read" is often very differently pronounced from the original (a good analogy would be the Ashkenazi pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew). I had an elderly relative who knew the Ottoman alphabet and so would "read" the Koran in Arabic, though pronouncing everything in a thoroughly Turkish way. I'm sure that many Indian Muslims who read the Koran and who haven't received special tuition for doing so simply rely on their knowledge of Urdu to sound out the Arabic text.

  7. Levantine said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 6:10 pm

    Lameen, the Hanafi school permits recitation of the prayers in languages other than Arabic, though I don't know of any Muslims who actually take this option. The one official attempt to replace liturgical Arabic with the vernacular was in Atatürk's Turkey (a Hanafi country), and that was an extremely unpopular policy abandoned after his death.

  8. Piyush said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 7:31 pm

    I am from India, and quickly filed that line "Muslims in India choose to learn Arabic" as another example of the BBC making stuff up on the fly.
    What they probably meant is that many of the learn the Arabic script. The latter is quite common in India, but outside dedicated university/seminary departments, the learning of Arabic itself is not.

  9. Leo E said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 7:35 pm

    In China there is still among many (mostly youth) an orally learned knowledge of certain important phrases, like the 清真言 (required professions of faith for being a Muslim), surat al-Faatiha, other short surahs, al-imaan al-mujmal (condensed statement on faith), and al-imaan al-mufassal (expanded statement on faith). While young (20s) students will be comfortable with speaking these phrases, although with heavily Chinese pronunciation, I've witnessed Arabic 提笔忘字 (character amnesia) among some of them like `Abdullah who lifted his pen and forgot the first Arabic letter of his name! Otherwise he was able to read aloud written Arabic.

    It is possible to find monolingual Chinese Qurans, like in a Xinhua bookstore, but I have not seen a Muslim carrying anything other than one which includes Arabic. Even when someone is teaching out of the Quran to Chinese speakers who don't know Arabic, he will read out the Arabic then either give his own translation/summary or read out the Chinese translation. So it seems in this way "reading" the Quran is not complete without the Arabic – like floating without any reference point.

    Many retirees spend their time attending Arabic classes to learn to read the Quran, and are proud of that ability. One man, unprovoked, recited in qiraa'a (sort of like singing but not technically singing) an entire surah to me while I was eating dinner (after waiting for a group of Tibetans to leave). Many are also able to chant/recite in a group praise poems to Muhammad, reading in Arabic and so expanding the field of sacred texts that have to be in Arabic.

  10. John Lawler said,

    August 16, 2014 @ 11:50 pm

    Quran reading competitions are big deal in Malaysia, for instance. They fill stadiums. Much more popular than American spelling bees.

  11. Jason said,

    August 17, 2014 @ 2:50 am

    Monoglot said,

    Since obviously not every Muslim speaks and understands Arabic (especially classical Arabic), how do they learn from the Quran?

    Almost all of them don't learn anything. William Tyndale never happened in the Muslim world. It's that simple.

  12. Levantine said,

    August 17, 2014 @ 3:00 am

    No, Jason, it isn't that simple. Korans with interlinear translations have existed for centuries (see my first post), and historical copies survive in very considerable quantities.

  13. Adam said,

    August 17, 2014 @ 10:27 am

    Besides the fact that translations of the Qur'an have existed for most of the history of Islam, it isn't the case that the only possible way for a non-Arabic speaking Muslim to "learn from" the Qur'an is by staring at text they don't understand, by themselves, with no recourse to other people or works. They "learn from" the Qur'an by listening to people who teach the religion in local vernaculars, by attending schools in their local vernaculars, by reading books in their local vernaculars, and by knowledge of the religion that is passed down in their community…

  14. Hannah Bonecrusher said,

    August 17, 2014 @ 5:34 pm

    I'd like to point out that reading meant "out loud" for a very long time after the Qur'anic traditions appeared: there's a whole book on the subject. I'm currently on a plane so I can't look it up, but until the Middle Ages, people in the West read *out loud*.

    The command that the angel gave to Muhammad is notoriously difficult to translate: "IQRA'!" means read as well as recite (same root as "Qur'an")

    Qur'an reading remains like this: you read it and your lips move. That's how you learn it even: reciting, much like Jews read Torah.

  15. GeorgeW said,

    August 17, 2014 @ 5:43 pm

    A number of years ago, I took a night course in Quranic Arabic for Arabic second language learners at a university in Saudi Arabia. I was the only non-Muslim in the class. I quickly realized that most of the students (mostly Indian, Pakistani and Turkish) could read ("utter or render aloud") the text quite well. My (AmE speaker) recitation was not as good as the others. However, my reading comprehension far exceeded anyone else in the class. I was shocked at the low level of comprehension.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    August 17, 2014 @ 7:58 pm

    In his past life as a linguistic anthropologist, Ben Zimmer conducted some relevant research on this topic in Indonesia. See his "Al-'Arābīyah and Basa Sunda: Ideologies of Translation and Interpretation among the Muslim of West Java," Studia Islamika, 7.3 (2000).

  17. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 17, 2014 @ 10:17 pm

    A lot of ink has been spilled on when reading 1 and 2 separated. There are characters in Greek plays who read silently and react to the text. Alexander was said to have astonished his men by reading a letter from his mother silently. Silent reading was still remarkable in St. Ambrose's time.

    There's a nice summary of all this here.

  18. Heikki Wilenius said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 5:14 am

    Multilingual Qur'ans are very popular in Indonesia, for example this one's in Arabic, bahasa Indonesia, and English:

  19. BZ said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 9:36 am

    In Orthodox Judaism, at least, there is a notion, for ritual recitations of the Bible and other pray, that it is as good to read in Hebrew and not understand as its to read in another language and understand. Public communal readings are almost exclusively in Hebrew (I've seen recitations of the Psalms in English on occasion), and there are even transliterations available for certain important prayers that are expected to be recite out loud by everyone at one point or another.

    This is not to say that Hebrew isn't studied as a language as well, but I went through 6 years of day school (though not Yeshiva) and still am lucky to get 60% comprehension when reading scripture and other religious texts. And that's when studying it. When reciting, it is often next to zero.

  20. Chris C. said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 6:32 pm

    This isn't too terribly different from any liturgical language, I'd guess. How many Russians understand Church Slavonic? How many Greeks understand Byzantine Greek or koine? For that matter, how many KJV-only Evangelical Christians are really fluent in Early Modern English?

  21. William said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 10:16 pm

    The Muslims' recitation of the Qur'an, and the way Arabic is written in the book, is pretty much like Hebrew is for the Tanach.

  22. J. F. said,

    August 19, 2014 @ 6:58 pm

    I understand in the good old days Chinese children would memorize the classics without understanding much, and those who went on to later study would slowly come to understand more and more of them.

    At the same time, I feel that many people treat their chosen texts as sacred without feeling it necessary to understand their literal (or metaphorical, etc.) meaning. And not just religious texts.

  23. Bathrobe said,

    August 19, 2014 @ 8:15 pm

    Having read through the comments relating to read1 and read2, I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned Chinese 念书. This one always struck me coming from Japanese, where I only knew 念 in the meaning of 'recite' (念じる).

    Since learning Chinese I've got used to the various distinctions (and overlays of meaning) between 看书, 读书, and 念书. (Of these, Japanese normally uses only 読書, which does NOT really cover the same ground as Chinese 读书).

  24. Bathrobe said,

    August 19, 2014 @ 8:18 pm

    (Actually, J.F.'s comment about memorising the classics is very relevant to the Chinese expression 念书.)

  25. Akito said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 12:18 am

    Japanese 念書 has a completely different meaning of "written pledge".

  26. GeorgeW said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 5:55 am

    "At the same time, I feel that many people treat their chosen texts as sacred without feeling it necessary to understand their literal (or metaphorical, etc.) meaning."

    Yes. And, I suspect the more esoteric the text, the more sacred it feels. This may be a way of differentiating the sacred from the mundane (i.e. everyday language).

  27. Bruce Humes said,

    August 21, 2014 @ 4:14 am

    This discussion reminds me of when I learned classical Chinese from a French Jesuit priest at the U of Pennsylvania back in 1976. All of us were shocked at the first course when we learned the teacher was not Chinese; then we found it downright bizarre that he could hardly speak modern Chinese. Who was he to teach us, including one Chinese grad student?

    But we — me in particular — got our comeuppance. We were studying the Classic of Filial Piety (孝经). During one of our first intensive classes (1 year of classical Chinese in 2.5 summer months!), he asked me to read out the opening text.

    "Excellent pronunciation, Bruce," he announced. "Could you translate the first part?"

    Which I did. "That's a pity," sighed the priest. "It seems you didn't understand a word of what you just read."

  28. Victor Mair said,

    August 21, 2014 @ 8:27 am

    @Bruce Humes

    What you write is fascinating, and entirely believable. Over the decades, I have had many students, including those from Taiwan and China, who could read off the texts we were studying in my LS classes in quite good Mandarin pronunciation, but didn't understand the sense of the passage in question at all, or had only a very poor understanding of what it said.

    I always let students from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, etc. pronounce the texts in their own language. As a matter of fact, Mandarin is the least suitable of all the Sinitic languages in which to read classical texts, since it has diverged the most from earlier stages. Japanese, Korean, Cantonese, Hokkien, etc. preserve the old phonological distinctions much better than Mandarin, so that is why I'm always delighted to have speakers of those languages read the texts — especially the poems — in their native tongues.

    It has also happened that I would have students from Greek or Sanskrit or Sogdian (Middle Iranian), and then I simply excused them from reading the text aloud at all. Yet these students often understood the texts better than those who could read off the texts beautifully in Mandarin or some other East Asian language. How is that possible, you may ask? The main reason is because they had a much greater appreciation for grammatical categories and philological rigor.

    I'm really interested in learning who that French Jesuit priest who taught Classical Chinese at the University of Penn in the summer of 1976 was. That was three years before I came to Penn. Was his surname Masson? I'm also amazed to hear that they taught Classical Chinese that summer and that they offered a course on that subject that lasted two and a half months. Nowadays, most summer schools only offer Mandarin. Although my regular year courses in Literary Sinitic are well subscribed, I don't think there would be enough students interested in LS to make it work as a summer offering at the present time.

  29. Bruce Humes said,

    August 21, 2014 @ 9:42 am

    I'm very embarrassed to say that I don't recall the prof's name!

    It's sad, because he was one of two teachers who helped me attain real proficiency in Chinese. I was deeply impressed by the fact that this Caucasian (who could hardly converse in modern Mandarin) completely grasped two things that were utterly foreign to me: the grammar of classical Chinese, and more importantly, the culture conveyed by these ancient texts. He didn't teach Confucian philosophy; he lived it.

    A bit surprised about your summer school courses in Literary Sinitic, though; every few years I get the bright idea to study classical Chinese in Taipei (run by Stanford U?), and each time when I write them in the spring, they respond "Sorry, we're full!".

  30. Victor Mair said,

    August 21, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

    @Bruce Humes

    Well, we probably haven't even tried to offer summer LS at Penn since 1976, the year that you took it. Even a specialized summer Chinese School like Middlebury probably only gets a few students. The year I took it there (summer 1968), they had 3 students, and they seemed happy with that.

    During the regular school year, counting auditors, I get between 10 and 25 students, and that's after shooing away anyone who is not really serious, because I always tell them it will be the most demanding course they will take in college. But I know of many top tier schools where they only get 2 or 3 students a year, and some of those universities are huge!

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